We can make a real difference to our nation’s physical and mental health if we put health at the centre of everything government does.
Today, governments can implement laws and policies without even considering the impact they will have on people’s health and well-being.
I’m proposing a new piece of legislation – the Health in All Policies Bill – that has already gained early cross-party support. It would make every government stop and think ‘health’ before taking major decisions.
You can see me introducing the Ten Minute Rule Bill by clicking here.
Health can’t be the concern of just one government department. We have a system which disproportionately focuses on treating people when they are in a crisis, already sick, rather than keeping our population well.
Yet, the quality of our air, housing, parks, transport, food, education and so much more has a vital impact on the health of the nation and preventing ill health.
That is why my Bill would insist that governments properly assess the impact of all new laws and policies on our health and well-being.
Of course, longer healthier lives for all should be central aim of government, but today, poorer people live shorter lives and are more prone to long-term illnesses, simply because they are poor. These ‘health inequalities’ are seen across coronary heart disease, cancer, mental health and other diseases.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care’s latest annual report, the health gap between rich and poor is widening. In 2010, life expectancy for men in England’s most deprived areas was 9.1 years less than it was for those in the richest areas. By 2015 that figure had risen to 9.2 years. The equivalent gap for women also grew, from 6.8 to 7.1 years. Poorer people are more likely to spend 20 more years in ill health than richer people. They are more likely to experience strokes, cancer and heart attacks.
The British Medical Journal reported that 10,000 more people died in the first seven weeks of 2018 than in 2017 with no obvious cause such as a flu outbreak. The Office of National Statistics has revised down its projections on life expectancy by a whole year, – that means a million extra early deaths over the next 40 years unless we act now.
My Ten-Minute Rule Bill would tackle these issues by ensuring governments take a ‘health in all policies’ approach.
It would place the physical and mental health of the population at the centre of all government activity so that no policy is developed or enacted without due consideration of its impact on health and, where possible, policies are designed actively to improve our wellbeing.
It would mean that when building new housing estates, or devising new school curriculums, or constructing transport systems, the impact on health would have to be assessed and considered, and crucially no opportunity to enhance health and well-being would be missed.
Health in all policies means placing duties on food and drink manufacturers, shops and takeaways concerning the ingredients in their goods, pricing and the locations where they sell it, to discourage alcohol abuse and poor diets.
The creation of Sure Start centres was an example of this highly innovative approach. We know the importance of the first 1,001 days of a child’s life, and how what happens from conception to the age of two still determines an infant’s life chances and their mental and physical health. So, there is no better example of why we need a health in all policies approach in services for mums, dads and infants.
My Bill would ensure that these innovations stretch way beyond childcare provision and health checks to looking at patterns of work, income, benefits, parenting, education, food, housing, transport, air quality, playgrounds and many other areas of policy.
The next Labour government will face a crisis in the NHS and social care, which will need to be addressed as an urgent priority.
If we want the NHS and social care system to be sustainable for decades to come, we need a step change in the way we address health policy.
Keeping people well is not a job for the Department of Health alone – we need to marshal the entire resources of the state in support of the nation’s health.